WASHINGTON. — MR. BUSH used a classic tactic to quash criticism Wednesday when he met with congressional leaders about their fears of war in the Middle East. Displaying Iraqi news stories about cautions voiced by U.S. Democrats and Republicans, he urged the congressmen to think twice about making such comments, because they might give Saddam Hussein the impression this country is divided.
None of the legislators was impolite enough to point out that the president and his official family are giving the world that impression all by themselves, without outside help.
If Saddam Hussein can pick up congressional criticism over CNN in Baghdad, our allies can pick up Mr. Bush's own zigzag explanations of his actions just as easily. And surely the Egyptians, Turks, Britons and others who have made commitments to stand against Hussein could read what Jim Baker said this week on Bermuda.
Speaking to reporters, the secretary of State tried one more time to explain why the administration is sending nearly half a million troops to the desert. ''To bring it down to the average American citizen,'' he said, '' . . . to sum it up in one word, it's jobs . . . the loss of jobs on the part of American citizens.''
This was a new entry on the list of reasons tested in the court of public opinion, where most of them have flunked. Mr. Baker's wording -- ''to bring it down the average American citizen'' -- sounded as if the idea had been pre-tested in private polls before he sprang it on the public. But it flopped as fast as most of the others.
Are we prepared to go to war against everyone accused of costing American jobs?
If so, then the environmentalists who want to protect the spotted owl against the timber industry had better duck into their air-raid shelters. A quick strike could take out the offshore assembly lines where Mexican, Korean and Taiwanese laborers work cheaper than their U.S. counterparts, making high-tech consumer goods for sale here. And of course the corporate executives who transfer American jobs abroad for the sake of higher profits should be tried as war criminals.
Economists have predicted that war, not peace, would shoot oil prices up toward $100 a barrel, knock the bottom out of the stock market and deepen the looming recession. Yet even if there were a consensus that (a) Saddam Hussein is costing American jobs and (b) therefore we should go to war, that is hardly a line to inspire enthusiasm in our allies. They would be only slightly more eager to sacrifice lives for American jobs than for one of Mr. Bush's earlier suggested reasons: ''our way of life.''
When he tried that one, in mid-August, the president also was refusing to cut back his Kennebunkport outings aboard his gas-guzzling cigarette boat, and resisting calls to mandate better gasoline mileage for U.S. automobiles. Thus the world assumed that what he meant by ''our way of life'' was cheap gas forever.
To be sure, on the same occasion Mr. Bush also mentioned jobs, and ''our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world.'' Later, Mr. Baker said what was at stake was ''the dependence of the world on access to the energy resources of the Persian Gulf'' -- but then Mr. Bush said at a campaign rally that ''the fight isn't about oil; the fight is about naked aggression.''
As he beat the bushes for Republican votes this fall, the president hammered at that theme, that in Mr. Hussein we are confronting ''Hitler revisited, totalitarianism and brutality.'' Then Mr. Baker, visiting the troops in Saudi Arabia, said they were there to defend ''the values that made the United States of America the finest and greatest country in the world.'' About that time, Mr. Bush said he was ''fed up'' with Saddam, and sent more troops -- explaining that oil was not the only reason; we also wanted to restore ''security and stability'' in the Gulf region.
The president is exactly right about congressional expressions of concern giving Mr. Hussein the impression of division here at home -- and that impression is exactly right, because the nation is indeed divided. It was united when the crisis began, because Mr. Bush said we were intervening to protect Saudi Arabia. It is confused now, because rhetorically and militarily he has upped the ante, changing the U.S. mission from purely defensive to potentially offensive.
In that transition, he lost the support of millions. He has flailed about, transparently looking for a rationale the public will buy. He has casually ad-libbed threats as applause lines at political rallies. That does not inspire confidence. Americans are more serious than that about whether their sons will go to war.